Cyril and Geoff both recently posted positive reviews of two of the more popular games of 2008, Dead Space and Fallout 3. Being the contrarian I am, I wasn't terribly taken with either of these games. Don't get me wrong; they're both fun. I've beaten Dead Space and played to level 20 in Fallout 3, having gone through what I estimate must be at least two-thirds of the story.
However, people talk about Dead Space like it's one of the scariest games ever made, and Fallout 3 as though it's the game of the year. Neither game deserves its reputation, in my view. I'll tell you what my vote is for game of the year at the end of this blog post.
As I said before, Dead Space is not a bad game. I played it to the end and for the most part had a good time with it. While Scott has had major issues with the PC controls, I found my Radeon HD 4870 (with vsync disabled) was able to deliver a satisfying enough experience. I do agree that there are many times when it's over- and under-sensitive, and I personally had to get used to not walking diagonally into everything due to the awkward third-person perspective, but I did get the hang of the game eventually.
A large part of my problem with Dead Space—and maybe it's just because I'm a film student who makes horror movies—is that the horror aspect is simply bad. When people talked about it being one of the scariest games ever made, I was on board. I'm fairly hard to scare, but I do know what constitutes scary. Freddy Krueger in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street constitutes scary. The tunnel scene in 28 Days Later constitutes scary. The chilling finale of Ringu constitutes scary. Dead Space is not scary. It isn't like I can't be scared by a horror game. Fatal Frame scared the daylights out of me the first time I played it. The first three Silent Hills are clearly creepy games. Even parts of Doom 3 wigged me out. Dead Space is not scary.
Yahtzee over at Zero Punctuation did a fantastic review of the horror elements of the game, probably better than I ever could, but here's my basic thesis: this is a game made by people who might have heard of horror movies and video games, even seen and played a couple (specifically Event Horizon and Doom 3), and figured they knew all they needed to know to scare the crap out of everyone. EA likes what they see, the game gets hyped up as being ultraviolent and absolutely terrifying, and all of a sudden we have a shiny new IP that comes with its own animated movie on release day.
Why am I so certain about the design team's unfamiliarity with quality horror? Simply put, I think Dead Space makes all the same mistakes crappy American horror films make: assuming that gore and violence are somehow inherently scary. While small children (and teenagers looking to get laid) might be scared by Friday the 13th, that philosophy clearly doesn't hold out later in life, when you'll be playing Dead Space.
Let's start with the decor, and I'll compare that to the game's possible spiritual predecessor—Doom 3. id Software's last shooter gradually ramps up how bloody and generally messed up the Martian base is. On the other hand, Dead Space just paints blood all over the walls indiscriminately and copiously, and anyone who's seen Peter Jackson's genre classic Dead Alive (Braindead outside of the states) knows blood and gore just become silly after a certain point.
Some atmosphere-related design decisions in Dead Space also seem to defy all logic. There's a door to a slab in the morgue that swings open of its own volition when you enter the room, but the game doesn't really have the kind of supernatural trappings to support something like that, and it just feels like a cheap Halloween trick. Likewise, the abundance of flies and maggots makes no sense at all, and I know I'm not the only person who was put off by this. On Earth or some other planet? Sure, flies and maggots, go for it. In a carefully controlled environment on a space station? It just doesn't work. And finally, there's the lab full of canisters with fetuses in them. Really? Didn't anyone think that was reaching a bit? Very little in the game supported that, either.
As a side note on the horror trappings segment, consider this: I wouldn't be so critical of these decisions if the game didn't make a big deal of being a serious horror venture, the same way the Transformers movie decided to cram two hours of worthless story down my throat when all I wanted was giant robots destroying stuff.
Most people would agree that Doom 3 was too dark. While I'm not one of those people, I can definitely appreciate that sentiment. The designers of Dead Space apparently can, too, because the game is wonderfully, magically, beautifully lit. It's never too dark for you to see anything, never too dark for something to jump out and get you, and consequently, never dark enough to be creepy.
To close my tirade about the visual style, I'll say a word about the necromorphs themselves. I must be the only person who wasn't impressed by these, and I wish I had a more articulate way of saying why. There was no rhyme or reason to them, no sense of design other than "this might look cool." This excludes the tentacle babies, of course, but this feels like a point where someone just said, "wouldn't it be scary if there were like... mutant babies?" Tour immediate comparison might be to the cherubs in Doom 3, and guess what: the cherubs were much creepier in my opinion. The cherubs giggled like infants. The tentacle babies just feel like a set of "also ran."
The visual stuff wouldn't be so criminal if the sound design could at least carry its end of the bargain. But I don't think it does. "Creepy sounds" aboard the Ishimura almost always feel random, like metal sometimes clanking in places you shouldn't even be able to hear it. There's no restraint or control here; it just sounds like a looping "creepy sound" background track. The only time the sound design rises to the occasion is in a vacuum, and sadly, those zero-gravity vacuum scenes are the only ones I found inspiring.
Finally, while the much-touted "strategic dismemberment" gameplay just felt like moving the hit boxes from the torso and head to the joints, it was fun enough. The real problem lies in the fact that, honestly, most of the weapons in the game are fairly worthless. I set myself on fire with the flamethrower the first time I used it. The pulse rifle doesn't fire shots in a way that's really intuitive for severing limbs. The best alternative weapons I found were the line gun and the ripper, but the plasma cutter you start the game with is easily all you'll ever need—especially when the ammo counter is full. Good ammo capacity, quick reload, excellent firing speed, abundant ammo... I mean, I used it to kill the end boss, for crying out loud. Using anything else just felt silly.
So, I found Dead Space competent and potentially enjoyable in terms of pure gameplay, but it irritated me whenever it started putting on airs of grandeur. It was still fun enough for me to finish it, although that's more of a reflection on my desire to play games that involve killing lots of things as opposed to being pulled into the story or atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, let's move on to Fallout 3—a game that pretty clearly has its share of devotees screaming about just that. Now, I haven't played Fallout or Fallout 2, but I can say with relative certainty that Fallout 3 feels almost nothing like them. Why? Because it feels too much like Oblivion.
If you've logged some ungodly hours on Oblivion like I have, you've probably become intimately aware of all the ins and outs of the game—particularly the technology of the engine. You know where to expect slowdowns; you know how the models look and act; you know all of it. So naturally, Fallout 3 in many ways looks exactly like its predecessor. Movement and jumping even feel identical to Oblivion. Dialogue operates in almost the exact same way, where the game pauses and centers on the person you're speaking to. And dialogue is really the first place where Fallout 3 fails spectacularly in my opinion.
Look, it's 2008. Mass Effect exists. Heck, I think even the original Half-Life 2 had better models with better animation and better voice acting. Why is Bethesda still camping out in the uncanny valley? Why has something that was a problem with Oblivion gone more or less unchanged? It gets worse when you listen to the pacing of how the characters speak and realize they were clearly directed to speak slowly enough that the player could actually read the entire subtitle at the same time. In other words, totally unrealistically.
The way the dialogue itself branches doesn't do the game any favors either. This was barely a good idea back in Jade Empire, until BioWare realized how to more or less fix it and did so in Mass Effect by giving you options that were "the gist" of what you would say while not being exactly it. The game then became involving because you were not only wondering how your interlocutor would respond, but also what exactly your character would say.
And to finish harping on the dialogue, Liam Neeson was a horrible idea as a voice actor to play your father. No matter what ethnicity you choose for yourself (and thus for him), your father always sounds exactly like Liam Neeson. The disconnect between the character's appearance and his voice becomes maddening, and it threw me out of the game.
So, from the technology and dialogue perspectives, Fallout 3 unfortunately feels dated and poorly directed to me. I'm glad Bethesda finally fixed the hideous water from Oblivion, but they also made everything gray and brown. While everyone else seems to love these color choices, I can't help but feel like this palette didn't do Quake any favors back in the day, and it's not exactly doing Fallout 3 any favors now. For this reason, I prefer Oblivion, which utilizes crazy things like colors and contrast. I do recognize these colors are supposed to be appropriate considering the game's wasteland theme, but I feel Bethesda stuck too closely to that theme. It's like the ending to the movie Identity: just because something works perfectly with what you had in mind, that doesn't mean it was ever a good idea to begin with. Fallout 3's color palette needed flexibility it never got, and as a result, every environment feels the same, and the game feels even more damningly repetitive than Oblivion did.
Finally, while I love the Perks system, I feel like Bethesda applied a band-aid to the leveling issues of Oblivion rather than actually fixing the problem. Capping your level at 20 was a horrible idea for a game as expansive as Fallout 3, because it removes one of the chief ways of rewarding the player for exploration: experience points. I have no desire to continue exploring. I've already seen what I'm fairly certain is almost every weapon in the game, and everything so far has been gray or brown, so there's not going to be anything new out there. What have you got left to offer me, really?
I will say that the lockpicking mini-game is a nice change of pace from Oblivion's, and the hacking game is loads of fun for someone like me who loves word puzzles. While lockpicking could get tedious and old in both games, the hacking game was always enjoyable for me and in an odd bit of contrast, highlighted how poor BioShock's really is. I adore BioShock, but I got sick of playing Pipe Dream all the time. The simple word puzzles in Fallout 3 were more my speed by far.
For what it's worth, I do enjoy Fallout 3, and I frankly suspect it's going to live and die by its mod community the way Oblivion did (vanilla Oblivion isn't particularly great, either). Fallout 3's combat system is leaps and bounds ahead of Oblivion's, and I've found VATS to sync up nicely with real time-combat (your mileage may and probably will vary). In many ways I feel like Fallout 3 is like the livelier, more exciting cousin of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. It has many elements I liked from that game but none of the ones I could do without. But it's also painfully repetitive, a flaw that's marred with some terrible design decisions and a strange disconnect between the fantastic concept art and the mediocre visual execution I've come to expect from Bethesda. The dialogue, something that an RPG often lives and dies by, is in every way awful: badly written, badly directed, and badly executed visually.
Given this protracted list of grievances on these two generally popular games, one might find themselves wondering what I like—if anything at all. What holds up to my scrutiny? What would I peg as "game of the year?"
I'm probably extraordinarily biased here. Mass Effect feeds on nerds like me who grew up largely on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's a funny thing: thematically, it feels like it sits squarely between Star Trek and Star Wars, offering Star Trek's sense of adventure and intelligent writing, with the action and grand mythos of Star Wars. There's something that feels very grown up about the Mass Effect experience.
Where Mass Effect really beats the competition—save perhaps for the Half-Life 2 series—is in its delivery of a truly cinematic experience through the use of smart writing and outstanding direction. It's funny what a difference subtitles make; without being burdened by them, Half-Life 2 and Mass Effect are able to mesh successfully the interactive quality of playing a game with the passive feeling of watching a movie. Subtitles can draw you out sometimes and remind you that all you're doing is playing a game. They're a very small detail, but they feel like all the difference in the world.
Part of what makes the voice acting really work is the use of big—but not too big—voice actors, coupled with a voice for your own character that never feels mismatched, no matter how much you customize his look. In Fallout 3, your father always sounds like good ol' Oskar Schindler regardless of whether he's black or Asian. Shepard's voice in particular never has that effect, and the voice acting surrounding him (or her) is the same. Cult movie nerds are going to recognize Keith David's voice acting as Captain Anderson, but he doesn't distract. In fact, the only voice that doesn't work is Star Trek: The Next Generation alumni Marina Sirtis as Matriarch Benezia. Benezia is underwritten to begin with, and Marina's voice acting just doesn't match the character. The mercy of her being underwritten is that she's underused, making her easy enough to ignore.
What finally nails the dialogue is the incredible modeling and animation for the characters, matching Half-Life 2 in some ways, exceeding it in others. Facial expressions are effective while being just stylized enough to avoid the precarious drop into the uncanny valley that Fallout 3 kicks around in.
As I mentioned before, the dialogue branching is also absolutely stellar, and BioWare smartly got rid of the single "good vs. evil" bar they used in previous games and allow you to more or less be simultaneously good and evil. It's a great dynamic, and the "good and evil" aspects are somewhat less blatant than before; the "Renegade" and "Paragon" meters might as well just be labeled "Riggs" and "Murtaugh." (If this makes no sense to you, I'm sorry you never saw any of the Lethal Weapon movies.)
On the other side of the coin, I found Mass Effect's combat to be shallow at first, but I eventually came to appreciate the depth of it. The space bar tactical menu is both intuitive and ingenious, allowing slowpokes like me time to think about and give orders, though targeting with it is sometimes problematic. After playing and enjoying the Rainbow Six: Vegas games and using the cover system in Mass Effect, I find myself now wondering why more action games don't employ a cover system. It's such a simple way to increase the depth of combat while making the environment feel more like an actual place instead of a backdrop. If I did have a major qualm, it would be how uninteresting the tech skills are in combat compared to the biotics. While biotics do all kinds of simple, fun stuff, tech skills are all basically variants on "grenade." Outside of AI hacking (which is awesome), they're pretty dull.
If Mass Effect has major failings, they have to be the abysmal inventory management system (which I hear is impressively even worse on the Xbox 360) and the landing missions that have you piloting the Mako. The inventory gets too complex over time, and it's difficult to determine whether or not half the stuff you're carrying even has any use. Something more visual that actually takes advantage of the mouse and keyboard would've been more appropriate here. At least, I would've liked some level of intelligent organization.
The Mako sections of the game, which are unfortunately numerous, range from enjoyable (flat terrain and shooting things) to the kind of thing you'd punish your kids with for misbehaving (everything else). I'm sure BioWare is very proud of the physics they've implemented here, but driving the Mako over harsh terrain is the kind of thing that makes you wish getting kicked in the Good and Plenty's would magically teleport you to wherever you wanted to go. If you play the game enough, you'll start to wonder if a swift roundhouse to the genitals isn't preferable to driving places. This is a genuine internal monologue you'll have. You'll really consider it.
So, even though the Mako portions of the game make me want to shave off my nipples, everything else is like a mad descent into nerd rapture. The number of subtle ways you can play and replay the game, the decisions you can make, and the incredibly intelligent dialogue branching... everything coalesces into one of the most replayable games I've ever played. The amount of time I've spent playing and replaying Mass Effect borders on the obscene; this is the kind of time you usually only devote to games designed to be simple and easy to return to, like Tetris and Audiosurf. It seems like the amount of complexity instituted in a game often serves to reduce the replay value, but in Mass Effect, it's been balanced beautifully.
The most curious thing about Mass Effect and how massively it's affected me (har har) is this: while visual quality tends to play a major part in whether or not I enjoy a game, I couldn't really care less about Mass Effect's graphics. I love playing the game on my Radeon HD 4870 at home, but even on the shamelessly overclocked GeForce 8400M in my laptop at the lowest possible settings, I still find it insanely fun and involving. With other games, I can't deal with having to reduce settings so far.
Call of Duty: World at War gets to wait until I get back home to my Radeon. But Mass Effect? My laptop would have to be fully immolated by my overheating GPU for me to put it down. Easily my favorite game of the year, and definitely in my overall top five.